“Midnight dumping” came to mind when Consumers Energy Company launched the shipment of its Big Rock Point reactor vessel from Charlevoix on the Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Michigan to the Barnwell, South Carolina “low-level” radioactive waste dump nearby the U.S. Department of Energy’s sprawling Savannah River Site nuclear weapons complex. The surprise and secretive shipment began under cover of darkness at 3 a.m., Tues., Oct 7. Only through the work of reporter Laurie Lounsbury (www.gaylordheraldtimes.com) was the shipment revealed. When pressed about the secrecy and surprise, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Jan Strasma at Region III headquarters in Lisle, Illinois admitted that NRC regulations do not require advance notification to state governments or emergency responders, nor security precautions, for such shipments. Grassroots groups spread word to the news media and concerned citizens along the route through multiple states.

The Big Rock reactor, built on traditional Odawa Indian sacred land, operated for 35 years, from 1962 to 1997. Experimental nuclear fuels (including mixed oxide plutonium-uranium -- MOX) and claddings were used. Some rods ruptured, contaminating the reactor vessel, as well as emitting large-scale radiation releases to communities downwind, where elevated thyroid disease and statistically-significant increases in low-birth weight babies and cancer deaths have been observed. According to Consumers and NRC, the interior of the reactor vessel was chemically “scrubbed” to reduce its radioactivity level to 13,100 curies (as compared to hundreds of thousands or millions of curies in a single train car of high-level radioactive waste), apparently so that it could be buried as “class C low-level radioactive waste,” the highest category allowed at Barnwell. What became of the “scrubbings,” and the level of their radioactivity, is unclear. The reactor vessel was inserted into a 25 foot long, 13.5 foot in diameter, 3 to 7 inch thick steel cylinder – the transport as well as burial container. The interior was then filled with low-density concrete, and a cap sealed on the end. The entire radioactive cargo weighed 290 tons.

In order to transport it to the nearest railhead about 50 miles away, heavy haul trucks were used (“Elvis” and “Big Daddy,” one pushing, the other pulling) with a 144 wheel trailer in between carrying the “garbage can of death” (as coined by Citizens Awareness Network of the Northeast) at a maximum speed of 5 miles per hour. Steel girders were used to span bridges not sturdy enough to hold such a load. At one such crossing, an axle broke on a bridge over the Boyne River. This incident was especially troubling in that Consumers’ subcontractor in charge of dismantling Big Rock, British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (infamous for severely contaminating the Irish Sea at its Sellafield, UK reprocessing facility) had admitted to NRC that the transport container would not survive a 30-foot-drop without breaching. In such an accident, NRC regulations would allow for persons – such as emergency responders, railway workers, or passersby involved in the accident -- 3.3 feet away to receive radiation doses of 1 rem (100 chest x-rays) per hour. U.S. Dept. of Transportation regulations assume that emergency responders could receive 5 rem doses in just 30 minutes during an accident. NRC allows “nuclear workers” to receive 5 rem per year during routine operations. Have emergency responders and railway workers along radioactive waste transport routes been informed that they are considered “nuclear workers” by NRC?

After the axle break, the shipment proceeded with four less wheels. After its rocky start, the reactor then spent the first night of its thousand-mile journey at a gas station which also serves as a bus stop for school children. The potential for an accident or attack so near such a large supply of flammable and explosive gasoline, involving children and other unsuspecting members of the public, was not addressed.

Since Consumers’ spokesman Tim Petrosky repeatedly assured the press that the public faced zero radiation dose, residents of Gaylord, Michigan lined the streets to greet the reactor, pulling up lawn chairs and having picnics to watch it be loaded onto the train. But actually, NRC regulations allow a chest x-ray (10 millirem) per hour to persons 6.6 ft away, and doses up to 200 millirem (20 x-rays) per hour at the container’s surface. Although the workers who welded the cask to the rail car over the course of several days, as well as railroad workers, received the highest doses, onlookers standing nearby for long enough also received an unmeasured, unrecorded radiation dose. “Permissible” does not necessarily mean “safe”. Radioactive waste shipments thus represent “mobile x-ray machines that cannot be turned off”.

The rail shipment continued through eastern Michigan at very low speeds due to the poor condition of the tracks. The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers union joined with environmental and anti-nuclear citizen groups, expressing expert concern about the deteriorated tracks, as well as the use of remote-controlled (engineer-less) trains on the very same tracks this shipment was traveling, thus increasing the risk of an accidental collision. Just two days after the reactor passed through Grand Blanc, MI another train on the same tracks suffered a 30-car derailment. The local fire chief speculated it was due to the reactor’s heavy weight degrading the tracks.

On Sat., Oct. 18, concerned citizens protested the shipment at the CSX railyard in Walbridge, Ohio, near Toledo. The reactor had unexpectedly sat there for 24 hours near houses due to a paperwork problem between CSX and Norfolk Southern (The "Welcome to Walbridge" road signs say "The Town on the Right Track" at the bottom, making this stalled radioactive waste shipment all the more ironic.). Myself and Toledo resident Mike Ferner of Program on Corporate Law and Democracy were arrested by railroad police for “trespassing” while attempting to take an independent measurement with our own radiation monitors (The officer who arrested me strangely kept telling me a number of times to "Turn that thing off," referring to my radiation monitor, as if the railroad company knew what we were trying to do and wanted to prevent it.). We will demand a jury trial and assert the right to protect public health and safety against a corporate/government nuclear establishment intent on shipping tens of thousands of high-level radioactive waste trucks and trains to Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Donations to our legal defense fund are welcome and can be made out to Toledo attorney Terry Lodge and mailed to him at 316 North Michigan, Suite520, Toledo OH 43624.

According to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the shipment traveled from Toledo to Evansville, Indiana, then Nashville and Atlanta. It arrived at Barnwell, SC on Oct. 21. The reactor will be buried in an unlined hole in the ground. Barnwell is already leaking, as has every other “low-level” radioactive waste dump in the U.S. Only a small number of radioactive commercial nuclear reactors have been dumped thus far. Maine Yankee, Yankee Rowe (Massachusetts), and Big Rock have been buried at Barnwell; Trojan (Oregon) was buried at Richland, Washington near DOE’s severely contaminated Hanford nuclear weapons complex on the Columbia River. About two dozen more permanently shut down reactors await burial. The San Onofre unit 1 reactor in southern California could be shipped to Barnwell beginning any time now. This 950 ton radioactive behemoth will be dragged miles across a fragile beach and wetland ecosystem, loaded onto a ship, then sailed for 90 days 11,000 miles by sea through the treacherous waters around the tip of South America (the Panama Canal has refused it due to its massive weight). The shipment is currently delayed due to misgivings of officials in South Carolina and governments along the route, especially Chile, concerning what recovery capabilities are in place should the shipment sink. Once delivered, it would then be offloaded onto a train in the Port of Charleston, SC and hauled up to Barnwell for burial. Barnwell is open to reactor burials from any state till 2008, when only South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey will be allowed to dump there.

(update taken from Greenville, South Carolina News "Nuclear reactor shipment delayed," November 26, 2003)

Written by Kevin Kamps, Nuclear Waste Specialist at Nuclear Information and Resource Service in Washington, D.C. on 11/18/2003. References and additional information available upon request: 202.328.0002 ext. 14 or